‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ — Brook Benton
“Rainy Night in Georgia” was a comeback hit for singer Brook Benton. Born Benjamin Franklin Peay in South Carolina in 1931, Benton cut his gospel chops in the local Methodist church, where his father was the choirmaster. Later, Benton’s deep, mellifluous voice powered nearly two dozen Mercury Records 45s into the Top 40 between 1959 and 1964. Then, overnight, Beatlemania swept many an American artist — including Benton, off the charts.
By the late 1960s, he was recording for Cotillion, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. It was there that he cut “Rainy Night in Georgia,” arguably the best-remembered song of his career. When Benton’s producer had played him the original 1968 version by Tony Joe White, Benton thought that White’s unpolished “Rainy Night in Georgia” was merely a demo (demonstration) record rather than a finished product. Benton realized that this was a good song that could become great, if done right.
And it was. Released just after the onset of the 1970s, Benton’s haunting, melancholy “Rainy Night in Georgia” became a mainstay on Top 40 radio. It painted a dreary, poignant picture of a man — we assumed he was homeless, both alone and lonely in a train rumbling through a rain-swept night. For a moment of comfort, the man held a lady’s photograph against his chest. Perhaps, in his mind, they were together again, briefly …
White was never pleased with his own version but, once he heard Benton’s, White knew that the newly released soulful rendition would be the one to find success.
Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” reached No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the soul lists. Other versions followed by country icons (Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Jr.) and soul superstars (Ray Charles, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave).
Although Benton released five Cotillion albums and 14 more singles, he never had another hit.
One thing Tony Joe White knew about was about rainy nights. “When I got out of high school, I went to Marietta, Georgia. I had a sister living there,” he said in a 2014 interview with music journalist Ray Sasho. “I drove a dump truck for the highway department. When it would rain, you didn’t have to go to work. You could stay home and play your guitar … I spent a lot of rainy nights in Marietta, Georgia.”
White signed with Tennessee’s Monument Records and found one special groove that would bring him some recognition. In his only solo success — “Polk Salad Annie” — the deep-voiced White described a tough-as-nails girl named Annie out picking an edible plant called pokeweed, which grows in southern woods and fields.
Many thought polk salad was code for something else. “A lot of the hippie festivals, flower children and everybody, they would bring deep bags of grass (marijuana) back to the dressing room or back to my tent,” White recalled, undoubtedly with a chuckle and an eyeroll. “And they said, ‘We brought you a little polk.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not the kind I’m talking about.’ ”